UC Irvine professor Greg J. Duncan has devoted his career to answering some of the most critical questions facing our society today:
• How greatly does poverty affect a child's future prospects?
• To what extent does it influence educational outcomes?
• How can we assure that all children receive a quality education that will lead to opportunities in the labor market?
These are far from esoteric musings. With a Ph.D in economics from the University of Michigan, where he spent 25 years before moving to Northwestern University and then to UCI eight years ago, Duncan isn't some starry-eyed idealist.
Indeed, as a scholar his objective is to expand our understanding of the effects of poverty, particularly on children, and to identify effective ways to tackle educational inequality and create economic opportunity for those from deprived backgrounds.
"I'm an economist, so I look at benefits and costs," he said. "I do worry about people who think that any dollar spent is a good dollar."
Over his long career, Duncan has won awards, served on boards and written or co-written several books, all dealing with some aspect of the intersection of poverty, inequality and education.
His latest book, "Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education," co-authored by Harvard education professor Richard J. Murnane, was published last year.
In "Restoring Opportunity," Duncan and Murnane discuss the widening educational and achievement gap between high- and low-income kids and illustrate the disparities through the stories of four boys.
They also profile specific schools and programs across the country that are successfully providing opportunities for children from impoverished backgrounds.
Now Duncan is involved in some potentially important and influential research.
Together with other social scientists and neuroscientists from several prestigious institutions, Duncan seeks to break new ground and, hopefully, provide educators and policymakers with information crucial to efforts to improve the prospects of children from disadvantaged circumstances.
In their summary of the study, the authors note that many smaller-scale studies have demonstrated differences in cognitive and brain development between low-income and affluent children, while other research has documented how income disparities affect children's school performance.
"Yet," they wrote, "there has not been a rigorous study of how income supports for families affect the brain function and development of infants and toddlers, and many scholars and policymakers remain skeptical that poverty itself is harmful to children's development."
In an effort to clarify that picture, they will attempt to discover whether targeted intervention, such as tax or income-enhancement policies, can make a difference for very young children from impoverished families.
The study will identify 1,000 low-income mothers with newborns in diverse communities. Some will receive $4,000 cash payments each year for the first three years of their babies' lives, while another group will get just $240 a year.
The families will be closely tracked to see how they spend the money, what type of child-care arrangements they have and how other factors such as stress and parenting methods may play a role. After three years, the children will be examined for cognitive and brain development.
Several million dollars has been raised from private sources to fund the study, but the researchers are waiting to hear about a recently submitted government proposal. If the government funding comes through, they hope to begin in about a year.
Duncan is accustomed to the need for patience where academic research is concerned. During his more than two decades at Michigan, he was involved in a project that ultimately tracked 5,000 families to learn how much growing up poor affected children. That study continues without him, but he still draws from its findings.
He has also increasingly looked at specific patterns related to income disparity. For instance, he said, gaps between the academic outcomes of poor students and affluent ones are expanding in part because low-income kids are increasingly segregated into disadvantaged areas.
They attend schools in neighborhoods where it's harder to hire good teachers and students move in and out frequently, creating classroom disruptions. He also cites the growing disparity between the amount spent on educational enrichment for high-income versus low-income kids as a key factor in their development.
Duncan is concerned that the disparity is being exacerbated as we develop into an economy that values highly skilled high-tech workers. The emerging skills gap could create a self-perpetuating cycle that feeds increasing inequality.
"The way schools have been set up, the way high schools have been set up, isn't good enough anymore," he said.
The answers, Duncan believes, will lie not with any of the silver bullets promoted by various interest groups — voucher-style programs, increased funding, new organizational structures or initiatives to buy laptops for students.
Rather, he said, educational outcomes can be demonstrably improved by concentrating on the fundamental learning experience through strong support for teachers, continual high-quality training, a focus on analytical skills and critical thinking, and sensible, well-designed systems of accountability.
And it's increasingly apparent that educational inequality starts from the youngest ages. While it's not impossible to overcome that gap later on, Duncan argues that it's more effective and efficient to intervene early. It's a point we'd do well to remember as we continue to wrestle with the thorny issue of how to guarantee superior education for the children most in need.